In their differing accounts of the first Christmas, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide important historical details about where and when Jesus was born.
An infant in a manger, a brilliant shining star, and adoring shepherds: All are familiar parts of the Christmas story. For many of the world’s Christians, the celebration of Jesus’ birth occurs every December. It is a time of light and joy, in which this ancient story takes center stage in churches through songs, sermons, and Nativity plays.
In the Bible, however, the traditional elements of the Christmas story are not presented in one single narrative. Nor do they appear in all the Gospels of the New Testament. The events surrounding Jesus’ birth are taken from two Gospels: Matthew and Luke. Each book was written during different times and in different locations.
Although much remains mysterious about the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, historians are using clues to shape their assessment of why two of the Gospel writers told the story of Jesus’ birth in the way they did—and why the other two Gospels, Mark and John, do not mention his birth at all.
That Jesus of Nazareth was born and lived in the early Roman Empire is a matter of historical fact. In the early Christian period, Jewish texts that sought to discredit Jesus were not seeking to deny his existence. Other sources that testify to his existence are the Jewish writer and historian Josephus, who was writing in the late first century; and some decades later, the Roman historian Tacitus. The Christians, Tacitus wrote, “worship Christus . . . who suffered the death penalty during the reign of Emperor Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.”
No non-Christian source, however, describes the birth of Jesus. The only texts offering detailed accounts of Jesus’ life are early Christian writings, principally the four Gospels that were regarded as a fixed part of the New Testament by the third century A.D.
For the many centuries following, these were regarded as entirely sacred texts. By the 18th century, however, scholars were beginning to try to place the creation of the Gospels in a historical context. Bible historians now consider that the Gospel of Mark was written first, since both Matthew and Luke heavily borrow material from Mark’s account. Written at the end of the first century A.D., the Gospel of John—whose themes are very different from the other three—is the last to be written.
There is some consensus that the Gospel of Mark was begun during or just after the First Jewish Revolt that began in A.D. 66. This revolt led to the Romans destroying the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, an event referenced in Mark. The Gospel of Mark begins not with the birth of Jesus but with his baptism as an adult.
Once scholars had established that Mark’s Gospel was written first, however, a new and intriguing idea took root: The authors of Matthew and Luke—writing perhaps in the A.D. mid-80s—had noted the absence of a birth story and decided to include one.
Some biblical scholars believe that the Christmas story was a late addition to earlier versions of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and that it was added sometime in the second century to establish links to Jesus’ prestigious ancestors and divine birth. If the great heroes of antiquity, like Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar, had been furnished with impressive backstories after their deaths, wasn’t it fitting that the Messiah should have one too?
Matthew and Luke both feature Jesus’ birth, but they offer very different accounts. Each Gospel highlights different parts in the story and omits others, placing their emphasis on specific elements. Matthew’s narrative begins with a genealogy, listing the ancestors of the Holy Family and tracing Jesus’ lineage many generations back to King David, while the Gospel of Luke begins with the angel Gabriel foretelling the births of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah and then of Jesus to his mother Mary.
The discrepancies continue into the Nativity scene itself. Matthew seems more focused on events that come after Jesus’ birth, including the visit of the magi, the cruelty of King Herod, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the flight into Egypt. Luke omits these events and instead relates other details: the census ordered by Rome, Joseph and Mary’s travels to Bethlehem, laying the child in a manger, and the adoration of the shepherds.
The text of the four Gospels was shaped by contemporary forces; the motives for including a birth narrative were probably rooted in the needs of Christian communities at that time. Questions could have been swirling among those earliest of Christian communities about the nature of Jesus’ birth and lineage. Despite their differences, Luke’s and Matthew’s stories link Jesus both to his divine parentage and his earthly ties to the House of David, emphasizing Jesus’ role in both God’s plan and in Jewish history.